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Television

Win or lose, Jonathan Banks is amped for the Emmys: ‘Hell, it’s a great meal’

Jonathan Banks in “Better Call Saul” on AMC.
Jonathan Banks plays fixer Mike Ehrmantraut in the AMC drama “Better Call Saul”
(Nicole Wilder / AMC)

When Jonathan Banks walks down the red carpet on Sunday at this year’s Emmy ceremony, he’ll have new company in an elite club that includes Ed Asner, William Shatner and Kelsey Grammer — and from a member of his own cast, no less. Banks and “Better Call Saul” costar Giancarlo Esposito are both on the very short list of performers to earn Emmy nominations for playing the same role in multiple TV series, a list Esposito joins this year.

For Banks, though, it’s old hat.

This is Banks’ fourth consecutive supporting actor in a drama nomination for his role as gravel-voiced “fixer” Mike Ehrmantraut in AMC’s “Better Call Saul,” the prequel to the groundbreaking drama “Breaking Bad.” His portrayal of Ehrmantraut in “Breaking Bad” nabbed him a supporting actor nomination in 2013.

The 72-year-old actor is crossing his fingers that the fifth time will be the charm.

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“I have no idea what will happen, and my anticipation is tempered somewhat but what has happened before, but I feel good,” Banks said last week during a phone interview. “All of this is a reminder of how lucky I am.”

He had just finished his final scenes for the upcoming fifth season of “Better Call Saul,” which centers on con man-turned-attorney Jimmy McGill (played by Bob Odenkirk). Banks anticipates that he will be nervous when his category is announced, but he is prepared to enjoy the moment win or lose.
“I just want to be surprised,” he said with a chuckle.

“Better Call Saul” received 11 nominations, including its fourth consecutive nod for outstanding drama.

Banks is facing stiff competition in the category, which includes fellow cast member Esposito, who plays the ruthless drug distributor Gus Fring. Esposito was also nominated for playing Fring in “Breaking Bad” in 2012, losing out to costar Aaron Paul.

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Other nominees in the supporting actor in a drama category are Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Peter Dinklage and Alfie Allen, all from “Game of Thrones”; Michael Kelly, from “House of Cards”; and Chris Sullivan, from “This is Us.”

But Banks’ slow-burn portrait of Ehrmantraut last season has positioned him as a formidable contender, with “Better Call Saul” moving ever closer to merging with “Breaking Bad” and McGill evolving further into the corrupt lawyer Saul Goodman.

“I really like Mike,” Banks said. “He’s terribly flawed. He may seem like a hard-ass, but his weakness is his compassion for other human beings. I think people can really relate to him.”

The conflicting elements of Ehrmantraut’s personality collide in chilling fashion in “Saul’s” Season 4 finale, “Winner,” the episode the actor submitted to Television Academy voters for their consideration.

In “Winner,” Ehrmantraut has to track down Werner Ziegler (Rainer Bock), the German foreman of a huge hidden meth lab commissioned by Fring. Ziegler has slipped away for a brief rendezvous with his wife, who is flying in from Germany. Ehrmantraut locates Ziegler at a resort and is taking him back to the lab when an angered Fring informs his fixer over the phone that the foreman must be disposed of. Ehrmantraut, who has a fondness for Ziegler, unsuccessfully tries to convince Fring to spare the man.

In a scene that takes place in a dark and remote mountainous area, Banks, with little dialogue, expresses Ehrmantraut’s tortured determination to perform his brutal mission — while Ziegler comes to the horrible realization that “my friend Michael” is about to kill him. Accepting his fate, the foreman asks Ehrmantraut to allow him to take a walk under the peaceful skies. Moments later, Ehrmantraut dutifully carries out the execution.

“It was an incredibly cold night when we did that scene,” Banks recalled. “We did it around 4 a.m.” He added, “Even though though Mike is a lost soul, he still has a code. This man has become his friend, this gentle soul, and this was a real hard way for Mike to go. He knew he wasn’t going to see him anymore. But you must never forget, Mike is a killer.”

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The actor has had a diverse career, earning an Emmy nomination for supporting actor in 1989 playing Frank McPike, the mentor for undercover agent Vinnie Terranova (Ken Wahl) in “Wiseguy.” He’s also appeared in several films, including “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Another 48 Hrs.”

He has called the role of Ehrmantraut “one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. It’s just been wonderful.”

And previous disappointments at the Emmys haven’t lessened his enthusiasm for the ceremony.

“Hell, it’s a great meal,” he said. “And everyone treats you very nicely.”


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